Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #30: Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer's writing career spanned three decades, but almost all his better work appeared in the sixties, the first of those decades. He's a second-tier writer: None of his works are outstanding, but some of it comes close, and a good deal of it is solid, enjoyable story-telling.

"Dinosaur Beach" (****-) is his best book, IMO, a short but elegant time travel novel. The 'back-history' of the novel is a history of successive eras of time travel. The first era took no precautions and made a mess of history. The second era took extensive precautions, and made a worse mess. The third era attempted to undo the damage, and just made it worse yet. I think you see the pattern. The hero of this story is Ravel, who is a *fourth* era agent, which means that he and his are working to repair the damage done by all the earlier eras -- as well as fighting agents of all the earlier eras, who think they know better. It's a nicely crafted and entertaining yarn of time loops within time loops and secrets within secrets.

There are about a dozen 'Retief' books, most of them collections of humorous short stories about Jame Retief (not his full name), of the CDT (Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne). It's really a one-joke series, but it's a joke that Laumer tells well, and that stands retelling: The CDT isa *very* broad satire on the American State Department at its worst, always seeking to give aid and comfort to its enemies, always ignorant of local realities, always exacerbating problems through appeasement just when a show of firmness would make them go away. And Retief is forever saving the day by ignoring policy and doing the sensible, or even heroic, thing. (This does not make him popular within the Corps.) Stated this baldly it doesn't sound like a basis for that many stories, but the storytelling is deft, the situations and the aliens are amusing, the sledgehammer satire can be ignored.

"Retief's War" (***+), a complete Retief novel, is my personal favorite (largely because I prefer novels), though other readers may reasonably have individual stories as their favorites. "Retief's War" takes place on the planet Quopp, which is so rich in metals that the life forms which have evolved -- hundreds of different intelligent species -- are more machine than animal. (The nearest thing they have to a hospital closely resembles an auto repair shop, complete with a range of spare parts.) Unfortunately, the latest Terran brainstorm involves putting a single species -- a particularly unpopular one -- in power, and that species is already in cahoots with the Terrans' arch enemies, the Groaci. It is up to Retief to don the exoskeleton of leadership, and organize a rebellion before it's too late. Amusing, entertaining, light-weight reading.

"Bolo" (***+) collects stories from another series of stories. The Bolos are super-tanks, intelligent and self-motivated. In some of the stories ("The Night of the Trolls", "Courier") the Bolos are just big tanks for the protagonists to overcome, but many of the best stories take their power from the contradiction between Bolos as intelligent entities and Bolos as supremely dangerous weapons of war. This is *not* military sf, as the subgenre has come to evolve. (I won't swear that's true of the new sharecropped Bolo stories, but they're not Laumer's.)

"Worlds of the Imperium" (***) is the first novel in yet a third series, this a series of crosstime adventures. The Imperium is an Earth on which crosstime travel was safely perfected. That world is also referred to as BI-1 -- Blight Insular 1 -- the Blight being all that's left of the numerous alternates that *didn't* perfect the invention safely enough. When the Imperium finds itself under attack from BI-2 (a world almost destroyed by a prolonged WWII), it conceives of a plan to replace the dictator of BI-2,one Brion Bayard, with a duplicate. They find such a duplicate on our world, BI-3. From there it's entertaining but unexceptional adventure fiction, with Bayard fighting foes and fighting spies and ultimately Getting The Girl.

There are a number of sequels which make better use of the possibilities of the crosstime premise, but do a poorer job of story-telling. "The Other Side of Time" (**+) pits the Imperium against a distant crosstime-capable civilization that diverged *way* back, and which considers HomoSapiens an embarrassment to the genus. "Assignment in Nowhere" (**+) is another decent yarn, about a conflict between a descendent of the Plantagenets and a descendent of an enemy of that house, which threatens to destroy the lines that survived the Blight. (And "Zone Yellow" () isLaumer's worst book.)

There are a good number of Laumer novels which are just good, readable adventure fiction. "Planet Run" (***), coauthored with Gordon R. Dickson, is actually a Western in disguise. Captain Henry is the old hand, blackmailed out of retirement for one more run. Larry Bartholomew, the son of the blackmailer, is the wet-behind-the-ears sidekick. It works: Laumer's stories and Dickson's have a lot in common. "Earthblood" (***), coauthored with Rosel George Brown, follows the adventures of a young Terran in a future galaxy in which Terrans are few, and not very popular. The youngster eventually rises to command a pirate ship (Terrans are very plucky and always triumph through talent or determination, it seems) and uses it to seek out Terra itself.

There are other Laumer books I've found enjoyable, but most of them are merely adequate -- and there are adequate books being written all the time. My advice, if you haven't read Laumer's books and are curious, is to try some of his better ones, and then decide whether you wish to read on.


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Dani Zweig